The Rise of the House of Godwin

By Geoff Boxell

There is a charming story by Walter Map's that Godwin was the son of a cowherd whose rise to power started when he rescued King Æþelræd Unræd when he was lost in the forest. There is another story in the Knyþing Saga where Godwin, the cowherd's son, directs a lost Danish Jarl Ulf to the camp of the invading King Swein and received as a reward the hand of the Jarl's sister and a place in the royal household. The truth is that, rather than being cowherds, the family was already established as Sussex thegns.

The first of the family to receive notice was Wulfnoth Child. In 1008, whilst the Danes were actively raiding England, Wulfnoth was commander of King Æþelræd Unræd's southern fleet. In 1009, a political dispute with Brihtric, the commander of the northern fleet, errupted into armed conflict. Wulfnoth was exiled as a result. He left taking 29 ships with him. After plundering his own lands, now confiscated, he fled. Brihtric persued him, only to perish with his fleet in a storm.

Wulfnoth's own fate is unknown, but his son, Godwin, had remained in England and in 1014 had the family holding returned to him; at the time he was a valued member of Æþelstan the Æþeling's court. After Æþelstan's death later that year, Godwin's worth was recognised by another of the Æþelings, Edmund, later to be king and called 'Ironside'. Edmund, like his elder brother before him, was opposed to any thoughts that his father, Æþelræd, had about preferring Æelfred and Edward (later king and known as 'the Confessor'), his two sons by his second wife, Emma of Normandy. For this, and other complex reasons, Edmund found himself in armed conflict with his father and his chief supporter, Edric Streona (grasper), Brihtric's elder brother. Into this confusion came Knute Sweinson and his Danes. Such was the mutual hatred between the two opposing English camps that, although they both fought Knute, they never did so in unison.

The king's health failed and Edric, no doubt fearing the vengeance of Edmund if he were declared king, defected with his army to Knute. After much marching, fighting, counter marching, and more fighting, the failing Æþelræd died in London. Edmund was made king of the English, broke through Knute's encircling army and wrenched Wessex from the Danes. Such was Edmund's success that Edric Streona submitted to him. Before Godwin's loyalty could be tested by having to work with his family's enemy, Edric betrayed Edmund at the critical battle of Ashingdon. Edric's defection at a crucial part of the battle caused horrendous losses to Edmund and defeat. Both sides now stood back and reassessed their position. The result was Knute and Edmund dividing England along lines almost identical to those made by Ælfred the Great and Guðrum. In 1016 Edmund died, possibly of wounds received at Ashingdon, and Knute was elected by the Witan to be King of the English.

Knute purged the English aristocracy, and included those English who had switched to his side during his war with Edmund Ironside: Edric Streona was in fact later executed. Most of those taking their place were Norse, but amongst the English to find favour with the new king, was Godwin. Knute loved loyalty, and, as later shewn, admired Edmund. In promoting Godwin he was binding one of Edmund's most faithful and battle proved thegns to him. In 1018 Godwin was made Earl of Wessex. In 1019 Knute returned to Denmark to secure his Danish kingdom. In1022-23 he again spent considerable time there. On both occasions he took Godwin with him. As his reward for his services in Denmark (which at that time included the province of Scania, now part of Sweden), the earldom of Wessex was expanded to include the whole of the old Ælfredic kingdom of Wessex. He was also given the hand of Knute's sister-in-law, Gytha. This made him brother-in-law to Earl Eilaf of Gloucestershire, and Jarl Ulf of Denmark.

By 1023 Knute's two senior advisors were gone: Earl Erik had died and Earl Thorkil had tried to start a rebellion in Denmark, which Godwin had helped to suppress. Despite reconciliation, Knute never allowed Thorkil to return to England. Knute's choice for his leading advisor was the trustworthy Godwin. Again Godwin gained, this time by having Kent included in his earldom on the death of Earl Sired.

From 1025 to 1028, Knute's Norse Empire shook to the sounds of revolt, led by Godwin's brothers-in-law Ulf and Eilaf. Accompanying the king on his expeditions that not only reclaimed Denmark and Scania, but also gained Norway, that included the notable defeat at Holy River, was a large force of English warriors. It is not known if Godwin was with him as records suggest that he may have been left by Knute to rule England in his stead. The earldoms of England at this time had been reduced to three, Northumberland under the Dane, Siward; Mercia under the Englishman Leofric, and Wessex under Godwin. Knute died in 1035 at Shaftsbury, England.

Knute had left two sons who disputed the vacant crown; Harðeknute, his son by Æþelræd's widow, Emma, and Harold Harefoot by his handfast wife, Ælfgifu of Northampton. Harðeknute was in Denmark, where his father had installed him as regent. Harold was in England with his mother's kin. The English Witan met, but was divided over who was to be the new King of the English. The Mercians, whence his family came, Northumberland and Knute's fleet supported Harold. His mother Emma, Archbishop Æeþelnoth, Godwin and the men of Wessex, supported Harðeknute. What evidence there is, suggests that Knute wanted to be succeeded by Harðeknute, and Godwin's support seems to confirm this. For a while both claimed to be king and coins were minted in both their names. It was expected that Harðeknute would arrive in England so that the Witan could hear both claims before making a decision, however, trouble with a resurgent Norway under Magnus, kept him in Denmark. In 1036, Harold struck south and seized the national treasury at Winchester, a city that formed part of the Queen's dower lands and in the midst of Godwin's Wessex.

Emma abandoned Harðeknute and sought help from her sons by Æþelræd who were in exile in Normandy. Meantime, opinion was drifting Harold Harefoot's way and even Godwin was wavering. The two Æþelings came, though whether to help their mother, or push their own claims before the Witan is unclear. Edward landed at Southampton in an apparent attempt to reach his mother. He was rebuffed by local opposition and returned to Normandy. The reason for his reception may have been the fact that he was supported by a force of French and Normans and thus seen as a threat. Ælfred, meantime, went to London, a stronghold of Harold's with a force of men from Boulogne. Whatever his intentions, to Harold this could only be seen as a hostile move.

What happened to Ælfred was to dog Godwin and his kin. The arrival of another Æþeling complicated a situation that had seemed to be resolving itself. Perhaps because of his reception in London, Ælfred moved south with his small following, possibly he was intending to join his mother at Winchester. At Guildford Godwin either detained or placed Ælfred under his protection. Which best describes Godwin's actions is unclear as the sources give conflicting views. Harold Harefoot sent his hearthtroop to arrest Ælfred. There must have been some action as the records say that they slew Ælfred's men before taking him under arrest. Later, at Ely, Ælfred was blinded, a common practice at that time designed to render a man incapable of being a leader. The act was badly done, for Ælfred died of an infection. Ely was in Harold's territory, and all contemporary sources blamed Harold Harefoot for the murder. Ælfred's brother, however blamed Godwin, and the accusation was to be raised time and again when Edward was king.

In 1037 Harold Harefoot was recognised as king over all England, and Emma went into exile at Bruges in Flanders. Godwin remained Earl of Wessex. In 1039 his loyalty to King Harold looked about to be put to the test, as Knute's other son, Harðeknute had come to an arrangement with Magnus of Norway. Harðeknute sailed with a fleet to join his mother in Flanders and there to winter over and raise more forces in order to enforce his claim to England. Before he left, Harold Harefoot died in bed.

With Harðeknute declared king by the Witan, Godwin again retained the earldom of Wessex. There were complications however. To prove his renewed loyalty, Godwin and Bishop Lyfing, who were involved in the detention of Ælfred Æþeling, were made to attend the desecration of Harold Harefoot's grave. The late king was dug up and his body dumped into a nearby fen. Godwin also had to swear, and provide oath sayers to support his oath, that he had no part in Ælfred's blinding and in fact counselled against it. To doubly make sure, Godwin presented Harðeknute with a ship and crew, fully equipped.

To punish the English nobility for backing his brother Harold's claim to the crown, Harðeknute raised a tax to pay off his invasion fleet. The men of Worcester shewed their objection by slaying the two huscarls the king sent to enforce the tax gathering. Godwin and the other earls were sent to ravage the shire as a punishment. The English started muttering, possibly to assuage this unrest, or possibly to keep him where he could see the only other surviving Æþeling, Harðeknute invited his half brother, Edward to leave Normandy and join him in ruling England. A year later, in 1042, Harðeknute died. He did it in spectacular manner: after raising his drinking cup in a 'Wæs hael', he keeled over, and died six days later.

Under Godwin's leadership, the Witan proclaimed the newly arrived Edward as king. Just to make sure Godwin presented Edward with a fully equipped and crewed ship, the same as he had Harðeknute. Edward was more Norman than English, having spent most of his time since his father Æþelræd's death in his mother's homeland. He was entirely dependent on the three great earls of England, Siward of Northumberland, Leofric of Mercia, and Godwin of Wessex. Of these, Godwin was the most powerful and influential. In 1043, using their support, he deprived his mother, Emma, of her lands and treasure. Edward rewarded the earls. Godwin's reward was to have minor earldoms given to his sons, Swein, the eldest, and Harold, and his nephew Beorn. The seal was set on the alliance between Edward and his chief of men in 1045 when Edward married Godwin's daughter, Edith. Godwin took this time to council Edward and guide him in his rule of England, but Edward used the time to start introducing Normans he had befriended whilst in exile to positions of power.

In addition to an increasing French influence at court, Godwin was starting to have problems with his extensive brood. His eldest, Swein, whose earldom covered lower Mercia and the southern Welsh marcher lands, had in 1046, been raiding the South Welsh in alliance with Gruffyðð, Prince of North Wales. On his way home with his victorious army, he stopped at Leominster. There he took the abbess and declared his intention to marry her. It was a year before he could be persuaded to part with her. Thereafter, he went into exile, initially at Bruges, and later to Denmark. As England was largely ruled by consensus between the king and the Witan, guided by the earls, Godwin was unable to save his son from exile. However, as Godwin's nephew, King Swein of Denmark, was being attacked by Magnus of Norway, and King Edward refused to support him, the arrival of Swein Godwinson with a troop of English warriors may have been a shrewd diplomatic move, rather than the exile's wandering.

Swein's lands were divided and added to Harold's East Anglia, and Beorn's Northamptonshire. Harold was soon busy fighting himself. In 1048 German raiders struck Essex and the Earl of East Anglia was with the fleet sent to deal with them. The raiders were amongst many that used Flanders as a base for raiding, with the blessing of its Count, Baldwin. In 1049, with Magnus of Norway dead and Swein of Denmark tangled with the new Norwegian king Harald, King Edward allied himself with the German Emperor, Henry. With the English fleet blockading Flanders, and the Germans attacking by land, Baldwin capitulated and expelled the pirates. In the midst of all this Swein Godwinson came home having worn out his welcome in Denmark. He sought reconciliation with Edward. He was opposed by Harold and Beorn, who no doubt did not want to give up the land they had gained by Swein's exile. Given four days to leave England, Swein withdrew to the family holding of Bosham.

At this point news was received of enemy shipping movements and Godwin, his sons Harold and Tosti and his nephew Beorn, together with the rest of the fleet sailed to intercept. Whilst weather bound at Pevensey they were joined by Swein, who had ridden there with some followers from Bosham. Swein persuaded his cousin Beorn to accompany him to a meeting with King Edward. Once there, Swein had Beorn seized, bound, and taken on board his ship. It may have been Swein's intention to use Beorn as a hostage, but the end result was Beorn's death and burial in an unmarked grave. On hearing what had happened the king and the fleet named Swein 'nithing', that is a person of no value. Swein's men must have had similar feelings as six of his eight ships deserted him. Swein went back into exile in Flanders. Harold found his cousin's body, and buried him at Winchester, alongside his uncle, King Knute the Mighty.

Godwin must have loved his son, Swein, despite his erratic and unacceptable behaviour. Over the winter Godwin worked on King Edward to allow his son back, and with his earldom to boot. The earlier problem of the land had disappeared with Beorn's earldom being split between Harold and the king's nephew, the half-Norman Ralf to compensate for that lost to Swein. The earl did not get away scot-free though, as he undertook to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Meantime, either through infertility or celibacy, Edward remained childless.

Edward took the bold, or foolish, step in 1050 of disbanding the fleet. Although a drain on the country's finances, its very presence had averted the avarice eyes of Norse and Flem from looking too closely at England. His reason may have been the strong standing that Godwin and his sons had with the fleet. Edward may have been tiring of the Godwin influence. If this were so, his Norman intimates, headed by Robert of Jumieges, whom he had made Bishop of London, no doubt influenced him. Later that year, Eadsige, Archbishop of Canterbury, died. The monks sought to have one of their number, Æþelric a kinsman of Godwin, made the new Archbishop. Godwin supported them. Edward instead made Robert of Jumieges Archbishop. It was not long before the Norman was in dispute with Godwin over certain landholdings that the previous Archbishop had leased to Godwin in exchange for services rendered. Frustrated by lack of success through the courts, Robert turned to whispering in King Edward's ear that perhaps, despite his earlier acquittal, Godwin was responsible for the blinding and subsequent death of the king's brother, Ælfred. Swein's dispute over areas of control with the king's nephew, Ralf; Archbishop Robert's dispute over holdings with Godwin; King Edward's doubts over Godwin's role in his brother's death. The pot simmered; it overflowed in the summer of 1051.

That summer, Edward was visited by former brother-in-law, Eustace Count of Boulogne. At the end of the visit, Eustace went to Dover to take ship. On his arrival he demanded free board and quarter for himself and his men. This was contrary to the common law of England, and the folk of Dover refused and a fight ensued with several deaths on both sides. Eustace returned to the king and complained about the folk of Dover. Edward summoned Godwin and ordered him to ravage Dover as a punishment. Godwin, aware of his folk's rights, refused. Edward called the Witan to stand in judgement of Godwin. For good measure, Edward raised the hoary old chestnut of Godwin being implicated in Æþeling Ælfred's murder. The fact that Eustace and his men had entered Dover armed indicates that they had planned mischief. Eustace was being threatened by an alliance of his neighbours, William of Normandy and Baldwin of Flanders. If he could do Edward of England a favour, such as bringing down an over powerful earl, he would have an alliance of his own to counter the threat, and Edward would be freer to rule England as he saw fit.

Godwin felt the trap closing, gathered the Wessex Fyrd, and summoned his sons, Swein and Harold with their hearth troops and supporters. He also made arrangements to marry his son Tosti to Judith, daughter of Baldwin of Flanders. If all fell apart in England, Godwin had a safe bolthole, and a son-in-law only too happy to give support to an enemy of Eustace of Boulogne.

Edward gathered his own supporters, Eustace, Archbishop Robert, his nephew Ralph the half Norman (later know as 'the Timid"), and the Normans he had settled in the Hereford Marcherlands. Also supporting him were the English earls, Leofric of Mercia and Siward of Northumberland who, no doubts were happy to see the rival house of Godwin get its wings clipped.

On 01 September, Edward was at Gloucester when he was informed that Godwin and his armed host was at nearby Beverstone. Godwin demanded the opportunity to refute the charges made against him in regards to Ælfred's murder. He also wanted Eustace to stand trial for his actions in Dover. Edward stalled, summoned the northern earls and cried treason! Godwin's bluff was called when the earls with their shire Fyrds arrived. Civil War loomed. The fact that this did not occur may shew that both sides well remembered the dark days of Æþelræd Unræd. Negotiations took place, hostages given (Godwin's youngest son, Wulf and Swein's son Hakon for two) and a meeting arranged to be held at London to resolve the crisis. The Godwins were at Southwark. There, their army begin to melt away as those who held land from the king or church had their loyalty swayed. Others followed and soon the Godwins had only their hearth troops left. Edward, seeing their diminishing power, now declared Swein Godwinson 'outlaw'. He then commanded Godwin and Harold to appear before him. Godwin asked for guarantees, Edward refused. Godwin was now in an impossible position: if he went to Edward, his safety was at risk, if he stood his ground it could come to armed conflict. He had been out manoeuvred and prepared for exile.

In early October Godwin and the rest of his sons were declared outlaws and given five days to leave the country. The men of Dover were left unpunished. Godwin, his wife Gytha, and his sons Swein, Tosti and Gyrth boarded ship at Bosham and left for Flanders. Harold and Leofwine Godwinson sailed from Bristol for the Norse stronghold of Dublin in Ireland. There, after a stormy crossing, they were welcomed into the court of Diarmait Mac Mæl-Na-Mbo, King of Leinster.

One of Edward's first moves was to replace Spearhafoc, the English Bishop of London with William, a Norman friend of Archbishop Robert's. Earl Leofric's son, Ælfgar received much of Harold's earldom of East Anglia, whilst Earl Siward received the rest. Odda of Deerhurst, one of Edward's kinsmen, was appointed to a new earldom in the southwest carved from the lands held by Swein and Godwin. Edward's nephew, Ralph, received the remains of Swein's earldom. The Normans of the Marcherlands picked up the scraps. Having rewarded those who had supported him against Godwin, Edward, at the instigation of Archbishop Robert, put his wife, Edith Godwinsdaughter into a convent at Wilton and started divorce proceedings, which may speak against the rumour of his being celibate. That year William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, according to one source, visited his distant relative.

Meantime, Godwin in Bruges and Harold in Dublin received English exiles and started to gather a force of mercenaries for their return to England. Swein, meantime, left for his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Swein, being Swein, made a grand gesture of the effort, walking there and back barefooted. He died of an infection on the return journey at Lycia near Constantinople. In view of the threat from Godwin and his sons, Edward gathered a fleet of 40 ships under the command of Ralf and Odda. However, the professional fleet had been laid off in 1050 and most of the ships came from Wessex and East Anglia, the power bases of Godwin and Harold.

On 24 June 1052, Godwin made a sortie across the Channel, possibly to test the defences, more likely to see what support he could count on from the men of Wessex. After recruiting in Dungeness and Hastings he retreated to Pevensey when the royal fleet sailed from Sandwich seeking him. A violent storm sent the fleet to seek shelter; Godwin used the storm as cover for his return to Bruges. Edward was not happy, called the fleet to London and dismissed the earls and paid off the ships and crews. He may have intended to assemble a new fleet whose loyalty and skills were less suspect, but before he could, Godwin, with his enlarged fleet, possibly containing ships that had earlier been in the royal fleet, landed at the Isle of Wight. Here he gathered support and supplies and ravaged the lands of those who would not turn to him. From there he sailed to Portland where he did the same, re-imposing his authority as Earl of Wessex.

Shortly after Godwin's departure from the Isle of Wight, Harold and Leofwine left Dublin with nine ships and ravaged Porlock to provoke Odda, who now had responsibility for the area. The local Fyrd was called out, but they were easily defeated. They then sailed round Lands End and joined their father off of Wight. From there the combined fleet sailed up the Channel and onto London, gathering men and ships as they went.

Edward summoned the earls and their hosts. Whilst Ralph and Odda responded, Leofric and Siward were noticeable by their absence. It may be that they were uncomfortable with the way in which Edward had dealt with Godwin and his kin: today Godwin, tomorrow Leofric and Siward and their kin? Or it may have been the increased power of Edward's French and Norman friends. Thus, Edward found himself out numbered.

On arrival at his holding of Southwark, Godwin talked directly to the men of London and persuaded them to support him. After sailing under London Bridge, Godwin's forces disembarked and, as in 1051, two armies faced each other across the Thames. Again there appeared to be little desire for Englishmen to shed English blood. With Bishop Stigand acting as intermediary, a truce was made and a meeting of the Witan called. Before it could meet, the Norman bishops Ulf and William, led by Archbishop of Canterbury Robert, fled their flocks, taking with them Edward's hostages, Godwin's son Wulf and grandson Hakon. It was not, however uneventful. Some of the royal thegns and the men of London alike fought in the streets with the Norman Bishops and their men to prevent the breach of trust. The Frenchmen of the Welsh Marches also fled; first to their castles, and thence to Scotland.

The Witan, when it met, included Leofric and Siward. Godwin cleared himself, on oath, of involvement in Æþeling Æfred's death and of treasonable intent by himself and family in 1051. The Witan and the reluctant King accepted the oath. Godwin and his family, except Swein, still returning from pilgrimage at that time, were restored to their lands and positions. This affected Leofric considerably, but an arrangement was held that, should Harold be appointed to Wessex on his father's death, Leofric's son, Ælfgar, would take over East Anglia. The Witan held that the crisis of 1051 had been caused by 'bad counsellors', and thus Archbishop Robert, Bishops Ulf and William and the Frenchmen of Herefordshire were outlawed. However, it needs to be said that not all the Frenchmen were exiled, only those who were deemed to have promoted injustices. Eventually, even Bishop William was allowed to return. Stigand's reward was to be made Archbishop of Canterbury, replacing Robert, who had abandoned the post.

Godwin Earl of Wessex and Landfather of his folk did not have long to enjoy his returned good fortune. On Easter Monday 1052, during a royal feast, he suffered a stroke, and died three days later on 15 April. With Swein dead, Harold was appointed to replace his father as Earl of Wessex.